A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon (August 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Boundless Love"

     As we get ready to bless backpacks for a new school year, I’ve been thinking back to my elementary school days when we would play kickball during recess.
     The two best players got to be captains and they took turns picking who they wanted to be on their team. Unlike the NFL draft that goes on for days, our kickball draft took only about three minutes.
     We all pretty much knew which kids were going to be selected first. You either needed to have a strong kicking leg or you needed to be a best buddy of one of the captains. That assured you of a first round selection.
     Even though we all knew our pecking order, it was still awkward for everyone when it got down to the remaining two kids. Someone always felt left out.
     It’s not just at school where people can feel left out. It’s anywhere, really. We live in a world that contains many boundaries which means that you’re either in or you’re out.

     Penny and I traveled to England several years ago. One of the favorite parts of the trip was when we visited the Cotswolds, the enchanted land of thatched roofs and William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
     It was a beautiful sunny day during our visit there. It was around lunch time and we decided to eat at a restaurant that had outdoor seating that overlooked the lush green grass and the meandering stream that went through one of the quaint scenic villages.
     It was extremely crowded and every table was taken. Fortunately, a couple got up to leave from a table right where we had been standing. “Ah, perfect! What great timing! We sat down and took in the beautiful scenery that was all around us as we waited for someone to come to take our order. It was one of those special moments where everything was just perfect; a perfect day, a perfect location, and a perfect trip.
    I’ll never forget what I said to Penny in that moment.  With so much joy and contentment in my heart, I said, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Just then, a waiter interrupted our special moment to tell us, “Sorry, but you can’t sit here. This is reserved seating. You’ll have to leave.”
     As we walked out of the beautifully manicured garden where we had been seated, I finally realized why everyone was dressed nicer than we were.  We were mere tourists who didn’t know any better. We were on the wrong side of the boundary line.
     A non-Jewish woman found herself on the wrong side of the boundary line when she sought out Jesus. Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon.
     The Canaanites were the people that the Jewish people had conquered several centuries earlier in order to take the Promised Land by force. She decided to cross over that boundary because her daughter needed to be healed and she knew that Jesus could make her well again.
     This non-Jewish woman was willing to do whatever was necessary to help her daughter find healing. She was even willing to refer to Jesus by using the Jewish title, “Son of David.”
     The disciples, knowing that she is an intruder, tell Jesus to send her away because she doesn’t belong there. She needs to be reminded that she is an outsider.
     Just like in Jesus’ day, we live in a world of boundaries that exist on so many levels. We have our own cultural, national, religious, economic, class, and political boundaries, just to name a few.      
     Whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s home near Baltimore, Maryland, I know to not wear my Steeler’s jersey since they are big time Baltimore Ravens fans. I know to bite my tongue when I’m tempted to gloat after a Steeler’s win. There’s a boundary that needs to be respected. I get that.
     Boundaries are just part of life. We live with them every day. They can serve a purpose as long as they don’t dehumanize people in the process. That’s the problem with boundaries. They often do more harm than good.
     This woman who crosses the boundary to meet Jesus respects the Jewish and Gentile boundary, but she’s willing to cross it anyway because her daughter needed to be healed.
     Jesus acknowledges the boundary between them when he tells this woman that his first priority is to his own people, the people of Israel. To emphasize this priority, he even used a common expression that referred to the Gentiles as dogs.
     You have to hand it to this remarkable woman. Even though she is well aware of this cultural and religious boundary, she pushes back and tells Jesus, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
     This woman was not going to settle to be the last person picked for the kickball team. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter and she was prepared to set aside any boundary to help her to get well. Jesus, impressed by this woman’s genuine faith, heals her daughter.
     The good news of the Bible is that God is about breaking down the boundaries that would keep us from experiencing life in all of its fullness. God’s love cannot be limited to one group of people. It’s meant to be shared with others. As one of our hymns says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s love is a boundless love.  It’s an overflowing love.
     Several years ago, our son played on the Middle School baseball team. During one of his away games, I noticed that the parents of the home team were getting ready to grill hot dogs for their players. They set up a couple of tables and put out ketchup, mustard, and relish.
     I remember thinking to myself what a great idea this was since the game was being played around dinner time and it would be a nice treat for their players once the game was over. During the final three innings of that game, I took in the delicious smell of those hot dogs on the grill.
     When the game finally ended, I was surprised when the parents of the other team invited the players and the parents of our team to join them. They had made enough hot dogs for everyone, including us. It was a wonderful display of sportsmanship and it reminded me of how God’s love overflows to all people, even people from the opposing team.
     Sometimes, we allow existing boundaries to prevent us from extending God’s love to others, but God’s love cannot be contained. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
     To all of our students who are here today for our backpack blessing, I want you to know that God’s boundless love will be with you as you begin a new year of school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you get to know your teachers and meet new friends. God’s boundless love will be with you as you study and work hard in school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you include others so that they don’t feel left out.
     God’s boundless love is meant to be shared. For this new school year, look for ways to offer God’s boundless love to those around you.
     At one of my previous churches, the congregation reached out to those who were developmentally challenged in our community by hosting a dinner party at the church each year. The church provided hors d’oeuvres, a DJ, and fancy decorations. The night included dancing, food, and lots of door prizes. Everyone had a great time at this event, including the people who volunteered from our church.
     I’ll never forget one year in particular when I was watching the DJ announce the door prizes. He would yell out number and a lucky person at one of the tables would happily claim their prize. This was probably the highlight of the evening for our guests.
     When the DJ yelled out one of the winning prize numbers, a lady sitting at the table closest to me yelled at the top of her lungs, “Here’s the winning ticket! Here’s the winning ticket!” You should have seen the smile and the excitement on her face as she screamed out those words. She wanted the world to know that she had won.
     I remember thinking to myself, “This is why we went to all of this effort to host this formal party. Just look at how happy she is that she won a prize.” 
     When the DJ came to her table to give her the prize, she pointed to the person who was sitting next to her and with great joy and happiness, she said, “Not me. Not me. My friend won the prize. Mary had the winning ticket!  Way to go, Mary! You won a prize!”
     This woman was more excited that her friend won the prize than if she had won the prize. She was teaching me and all of us the true meaning of God’s boundless love. God’s love isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared with those around us.
     The Canaanite woman who crossed a religious and cultural boundary to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, also teaches us a thing or two about God’s boundless love. She knows that by the world’s definition, she has no business interacting with Jesus and his disciples. She knows that she is in unchartered waters. She knows that she has crossed the boundary line.
     There are very few people who would have done what she did. She took a risk because she knew that Jesus would be able to heal her daughter. She knew that there was a chance that Jesus would have compassion on her and her daughter.
     She was willing to take whatever crumbs were left under the table. And instead of leftovers, she ended up getting a four-course meal. Jesus even told her, “Great is your faith!”
     Jesus didn’t say this kind of thing to very many people but he said it to this woman, this outsider who knew that God’s boundless love was at work through him, something that the religious leaders and the insiders didn’t seem to understand.
     For those of us who may feel like we are on the outside looking in, I invite us to remember this remarkable woman.  She teaches us the true meaning of God’s boundless love.
     It’s a love that reaches out to all people. It’s a love that crosses all boundaries. It’s a love that never ends.
     There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.

     Thanks be to God!

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